There was a time when the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo would have featured strongly in political debate in Britain. Just two weeks after a negotiated ceasefire appeared to have provided some respite, a war of attrition in Syria’s second largest city is escalating into a vast human tragedy. Last Saturday, a bomb dropped by Syrian government forces knocked out a pumping station which had been supplying water to two million people, 250,000 of whom are besieged in the rebel-held east of the city. On the same day, at least 45 people, many of them children, were killed by barrel bombs dropped indiscriminately on civilians — a now common occurrence.
Food supplies had already been running low, supply lines to rebel areas having been severed in early September. If not blasted out of their homes, trapped civilians now face starvation and waterborne disease. Just 35 doctors are estimated to remain in the besieged area.
Yet in Britain there are no emergency debates; the issue is barely mentioned at party conferences. There is no sign that Britain any longer has a foreign policy which addresses humanitarian crises in faraway war-torn countries.
Insofar as Syria has featured in British politics at all in recent months, the debate has consisted of a feeble opposition trying to score points about a small handful of refugees who have made it to Calais and who are already living in safety, albeit in makeshift conditions. The 8.7 million Syrians displaced within their own country — still less those who have been unable to flee the fighting — don’t get a look-in.
When war broke out between Assad and rebel forces in Syria five years ago, it marked a break with western policy in the Middle East. War-weary from long campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US stood back. David Cameron’s coalition, more interested in Libya at the time, did the same. The conflict was left to sort itself out, the assumption being that Assad would quickly fall or that one side or the other would soon gain the upper hand.
What has happened since is a demonstration of how non-intervention also has consequences. Assad’s forces have found themselves in a war of attrition against various rebel groups, later complicated by the arrival of Isis. Evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 did briefly raise the possibility of western intervention, but David Cameron’s call for action against government forces was squashed in Parliament. It was already too late; the moderate rebels he had hoped to arm had been overwhelmed by jihadists. When he failed to convince Parliament and lost the vote, he took it as a sign that Britain had lost its appetite for caring about the world’s problems.
There still is plenty of concern about the atrocities in Syria. But after the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, military action will only gain approval if a convincing case is made.
When Cameron went back to Parliament to call for British airstrikes in Syria last December — this time, bombing the other side — he spoke of an urgent need to act: every day that Britain prevaricates is a day when Isis grows stronger. In fact, deploying our depleted and ageing air force has had very little effect. In nine months, just 65 British strikes against Isis forces in Syria have taken place.
Inexorably, the West has been drawn into the Syrian conflict — in the worst possible way. The battle for Aleppo is developing into a Cold War-style proxy battle between the US and Russia. In contrast to the decisive action in the two Gulf wars, this is not a battle that America is winning. Putin, who claims to be acting as peace-broker but who has demonstrated over and over again that he is really on the side of Assad, has been running rings around Obama. It was Russian strikes on rebel forces in Aleppo that broke a four-year deadlock, cutting off supply lines and leading to the current siege.
The West is damned if it intervenes in Middle Eastern power struggles and damned if it doesn’t. Nor has the halfway measure of aiding rebels against a bullying dictator without becoming directly involved — as practised in Libya — shown itself to be successful. Post-Gaddafi Libya is a failed state with a huge arsenal of weapons in the hands of militants.
But it is bizarre that Britain — which in spite of defence cuts is still the world’s fifth largest military power — has nothing to say on the emerging tragedy of Aleppo. It is a symptom not only of military retrenchment but of diplomatic shrinkage too. This month, at least a brief ceasefire was arranged in Aleppo with Russian and US agreement. Should we not at least be a visible part of these efforts?
Inevitably, a large amount of the May government’s time and effort will be devoted to Brexit — but this should not be to the exclusion of our wider role in foreign affairs. The Brexit vote was an instruction to move on from European parochialism and take a more global approach. This means more than signing trade deals. As Mrs May seeks to reshape the government in the wake of the referendum result, she ought to remember that.